How Transposing Instruments Work

This music is a chunk from a trio I wrote
called “Fast Shoes.” It’s for oboe, oboe d’amore, and English
horn. They are planing a line of parallel major
triads. That is, they each play the same melody but
are playing different notes. But look at the sheet music. Everyone is playing the same written notes! How could this be? This is Music Corner Breve. I’m David Kulma. The oboe, the oboe d’amore, and the English
horn are all members of the oboe instrument family. That is, since I’m an oboist, I can use
my knowledge and skill to play all three instruments. But there are important differences between
these three kinds of oboe. The most important is what happens when I
play the same fingerings on each instrument. To show this difference, let’s use a song
you learned on the recorder in elementary school: “Hot Cross Buns.” The oboe and recorder fingerings match. You only need three notes you can play with
just your left hand: B, A and G. But if I play the same melody on the English
horn, it’s lower. A perfect fifth lower to be exact. The notes become E, D, and C. Finally on the oboe d’amore, I’ll get
a third set of resulting notes: G sharp, F sharp, and E. This process of moving the melody to new notes
is called transposition. When I play the G major melody on English
horn, it comes out in C major instead. For oboe d’amore, it goes from G major to
E major. So how do we handle this transposition? Do I have to learn three sets of note names
for my oboe fingerings? No, musicians came up with a different solution. That solution lets the oboist use only one
set of note names for all three instruments so they all use the same notation, but it
requires the composer to keep track of what instruments transpose these written notes
to different sounding notes. This means the English horn and the oboe d’amore
are transposing instruments, because the notes they finger and read are different from the
ones that come out. As you might guess, this makes playing instruments
easier, but makes writing music for these instruments more complicated. To get all three instruments to play the same
sound, I have to write three different notes. For G on the oboe, I play a G. For oboe d’amore to sound a G, instead I
play a B flat. For English horn to sound a G, instead I play
a D. Then if I write the same note for all three
instruments, I get three different sounds. If I play a G on the oboe, it still sounds
a G. If I play a G on the oboe d’amore, it sounds
an E. If I play a G on the English horn, it sounds a C. And since C, E, and G make a major
triad, this is why when the oboe, the oboe d’amore, and the English horn all play the
same written melody together, they plane a line of parallel major triads. Music Corner just reached 500 subscribers! Thank you all for supporting my work here. Make sure you share Music Corner with your
friends to help grow our music nerd community. Thanks for watching Music Corner Breve. I’ll see you next week, music nerds. And remember “everything we do is music.”